Posted by: facetothewind | April 13, 2015

Full Circle

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I seem to be having a mental block about blogging these days. It kind of came over me now that I’m back in Kuala Lumpur. I just found myself dragging to do my post-US roundup of photos and stories.

You see, I blog for a few reasons:

  1. It breaks my own isolation by sharing what’s going on inside with the outside world. You get to witness my life as I’m playing it out in the far corners of the planet and as a result I feel you’re nearer.
  2. It’s a way to showcase my meager talents in photography and writing with my even meager-er number of subscribers. Your kind words make me smile and I like sharing this crazy journey with an avid reader/viewer.
  3. It’s a way to resolve something for myself…after blogging, some seemingly intractable problem has now been examined and aired out like old sweaters in the attic. It freshens things up a bit for me and allows me to make some forward movement in my life.

Let’s look at #3. What’s currently on my table to resolve is huge and perhaps so large that I’ve just been avoiding picking it apart. Here’s what’s going on:

While I fell in love with the most wonderful guy in Malaysia, I have come to really dislike the place where the romance is currently being staged. I question what good is going to come of this daring adventure in love. What’s the future for us born of two different nations and cultures? He’s the Chinese son of a widowed cancer-survivor mother. He’s unlikely to ever leave his mother alone for long. And I can’t stand being a prisoner in my cushy apartment for much longer. I promised I would give Chuan a year to figure something out with his job. In that year I’ll spend a lot of time in airports avoiding being in KL. But what happens at the end of that year if he isn’t ready to leave with me? And what happens if I can’t even limp across the finish line? What if well before a year’s deadline I run screaming to a more civilized place? And what about my negativity about the homeland of my boyfriend? It can’t be very pleasant for him to witness my disenchantment. I worry my poo colored glasses will poison our relationship and then I will leave empty-handed. It’s all troubling — what I’ve gotten us both into. We are well beyond the point of no return and any action taken now is going to leave someone hurt: him (and me) or his mother. The mere thought of all this has left me sobbing in his arms a few times lately. I promised him I wouldn’t leave him alone here but if he won’t come with me when I’m ready (and I’m ready), then does my honor come at the expense of my daily happiness?

I hear myself repeating the line from the film Best Exotic Marigold Hotel: “Everything works out in the end and if it hasn’t worked out, then it isn’t the end.” A healthy amount of faith is necessary to abide by that line which, let’s face it, aren’t the prescriptive words of some great guru. They are the words of Hollywood written to make you feel good about your station in life, however limited and riddled with problems it may be. And just between you and me, I simply don’t trust that things will all work out. Tell that line right now to all the people in Yemen or Syria or South Sudan. For them it is the end and it hasn’t worked out. In the words of poet David Whyte, “I have no faith myself. I refuse it even the smallest entry.”

Add to all this my slowly dwindling financial situation: my fast-becoming-worthless Hawaii house, and the limited cachet of a 51 year old self-styled artist lacking in a big fat pension plan. It is the life of a so-called “free spirit” careening into the unglamorous reality of being financially marooned in my old age. I am a person who thrives on simplicity and right now, managing 2 aging homes from afar (homes that have not appreciated a dime in 10 years) while trying to cope with the one I’m in at the moment in KL — it feels like I am juggling so many balls that I may drop them all at once.

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Airports where it seems I spend most of my life.

But the trip to the U.S. was an interesting one. It was the first time I went to my home country as a tourist — in and out in a short time, a roundtrip ticket that originated in a foreign country. America seemed, after nearly a year away, like a breath of fresh air, a big juicy bite of good food, a tingling glug of rich, amber beer. It was a month of peace and quiet, wide cycling lanes, flowering trees, and cool nights. And honestly, at the end of my trip, I was not ready to come back to Malaysia. Nothing about Malaysia feels like home. From the ever-alienating-to-an-atheist call to prayer, to the pedestrian unfriendly streets, to the searing heat and humidity, to the unhappy faces of countless unfortunate migrant workers plying the streets looking for work. From the disappointing food options, to the bad (and expensive) beer and wine. From the traffic-choked streets and motorcycle clogged sidewalks to the buzzing maze of shopping malls and oven-like parking garages I get lost in — it feels like I’m wandering endlessly through some underworld with rats scurrying at my feet. Nothing about this place feels like a yes. Nothing except easy medical care and Chuan, who offers up his undying love and embracing arms to me.

I want to run away with Chuan and fortunately we now have the option of marriage in the U.S. with a green card at the end of the process. But how will he take to America if he chooses to do that? How will he be when separated from his friends and family and land of familiarity? Will we just be turning the tables and then he’ll be sitting at my home in the desert, isolated and longing for some good fish balls and curry noodles? There is a price to be paid for our global existence. It is the fallout of families and lovers broken apart for long periods. Or forever. It is the cultural isolation we find in our new homes. It is Chinese filial piety versus American independence. It is me fumbling with chopsticks and he wondering why we eat blue cheese. It is the sting of glass ceilings — of always being the outsider, always the foreigner. It is the distance between people both measurable and immeasurable.

Does it work to one day declare yourself an expat and leave your home country knowing that you are just a click away from bailing on your ideals and running back only to concede failure? Or is life just one big journey with no beginning and no end? And if it hasn’t worked out, then maybe it isn’t the end and you can choose a new location if you’re one of the few lucky people to be able to do that. I am one of those blessed (and admittedly cursed) people with the means and passport to roam freely about the planet. Recreation for me is going on KAYAK and searching for flights to this place and that place, plotting my exit. I want to punch in my destination as “home” and see where that gets me.

Touch down KL.

Touch down Hong Kong on the way to KL.

Anyway, this Pandora’s box of self-inflicted issues to resolve is why I’ve not blogged since I landed back in Malaysia. It seems I’m in need of a direction, a game plan, and some courage to fight for it. Or to simply surrender. I just don’t know which to do. I’ve been paralyzed to unpack my feelings about what’s going on, to take an honest look at what’s going to unravel and get ugly if I don’t do something drastic…

Like chill.
Like be grateful for the love I have.
Like remembering why I came here in the first place.

In the clearing stands a boxer
And a fighter by his trade
And he carries the remainders
Of every glove that laid him down
And cut him till he cried out
In his anger and his shame
“I am leaving, I am leaving”
But the fighter still remains

— Paul Simon The Boxer

So watch the movie of my trip to America and the return to Malaysia at the end…

RETURN TO KUALA LUMPUR

Click on photos to enlarge or hover over them to see captions…

 TUCSON, ARIZONA

FORT MYERS, FLORIDA (to see the family)

Posted by: facetothewind | March 16, 2015

Inside Out

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Inside Out

A poem by January Handl • photo by David Gilmore

Electric hum of suburban existence
Is as silent as this moment can be
The miracles of long travels
In less than a day
Have asked my body for a toll
That is more difficult to pay
With the passage of years
Today begs rest, yet the other buzz,
From my mind, from within,
Long lists of tedious tasks
Feels unrelenting while inside the cocoon
Of my modern domicile
‘Tis stepping into the quietude
Of the natural world
That my very cells
sense the peace
Of no effort
No where to go
Nothing to do
No one to be
Grace and gratitude
Surrounds, fills and
Bursts into ambient
Waves of purring contentment

Posted by: facetothewind | March 14, 2015

Living Between the Worlds

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Upon reflection, a life falls naturally into chapters, though at the time of the unfolding it may not be clear what the title is or even that a new chapter been opened. And every time an ocean is crossed, a new chapter begins. I’d been dreading the eventuality of a return to America, that was until Malaysia began working my last nerve. On a daily basis, Kuala Lumpur subjects me to more objectionable raw material than most Americans see in a lifetime. Everything from rats in restaurants to chickens being slaughtered in the street. And when my ears, eyes, and belly were chock full of objectionables, I began to look forward to the freshness of a return to America for clean air, clean water, clean food, unobstructed sidewalks, considerate drivers, and a few of the palatable aspects of law and order.

Nine months ago, I chose to expatriate myself from America to Malaysia. I sailed from New York across the ocean and began a slow migration across the European continent. It was a choice to relocate based almost entirely on intuition that at the end of this long journey I would be awarded the prize of a lifetime, the one thing I’ve been missing my whole life: love. I was certain I would find the man I was searching the world over for in Kuala Lumpur, and indeed I did — in the first 3 weeks!

But while I was falling in love with him, I was falling out of love with the turf on which our romance was being played. Sigh on the impossibleness of getting all you desire in one place. While I now enjoy loving companionship, we can’t go out the door without being assaulted by all that’s wrong with Kuala Lumpur from entrenched homophobia to the chaotic road conditions that threaten your life — whether you’re on foot or in a car. And sometimes when you just can’t resolve all the intractable issues you face, you just have to take a break and get a fresh perspective. Cross an ocean. Start a new chapter, the title of which is to be determined.

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My intermission from Malaysia began in the San Francisco Bay Area…a sort of half-way house for me and the one place on earth that at age 23. I was certain then that I would remain in San Francisco for the rest of my days. That all came to a close in 2001 when SF was overtaken by the high tech business and its spendy young techlings. The Bay Area being as sophisticated as it is usually doesn’t ram in your face the “4G” reasons I left the USA: Guns, God, Greed, and Gluttony. Though it does possess more than its share of good old-fashioned American greed, the other 3G’s — the hardcore reasons America is a country worth leaving — are largely absent in the Bay Area. I staved off my full immersion into the American reality for the Florida portion of this trip. (To come)

“San Francisco is 49 square miles surrounded by reality.” — Paul Kantner

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I spent several days up all night recovering from heinous 16 time zone jet lag at my friend Jean’s in San Rafael. We spent the days sweetly flying kites on Muir Beach and eating American-sized portions of delicious food.

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With all this gorgeous weather and food, I found myself blissfully celebrating my citizenship in this lovely country. Being expatriated seems to have grown my love for America, especially the natural beauty. But the Bay Area is truly a bubble and a beautiful but fiendishly expensive one at that. I hear the going rate for a room in a share in a San Francisco apartment is now about $1,750 per month. It’s a nice place to visit and a great place to land after 9 months of expatiation. But I can’t see any possibility of living there unless someone left me a home in West Marin or Big Sur and a $10,000 monthly stipend to afford the price of everything.

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One afternoon, Jean and I took a sunset hike somewhere near the summit of Mt. Tamalpais, about 10 miles north of San Francisco. From there you can see both the ocean and towering skyscrapers of downtown San Francisco, and even just the tippy top of the Golden Gate Bridge’s north tower. (You can click on some of these images to enlarge them.)

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After having lived in Asia which is largely overpopulated and polluted, I had a very conservative thought: if the US didn’t have such stringent visa and immigration requirements, I would not be enjoying the silence and clean air of this mountaintop. I wouldn’t be hearing the surf thousands of feet below; I’d be hearing motorcycles. I’d be stepping over piles of trash on the trail. So from the vantage point of Mt. Tam and the friendly, smart people of the Bay Area, I’d say America is a very lovable nation, indeed.

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But the bubble burst when I got to the airport on my way to Fort Myers to see my family only to find that my flight was cancelled due to fog and that I had to be re-routed through Milwaukee, Wisconsin, home of famed serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. Milwaukee is reason enough to see America as quite leaveable. Thank you Southwest Airlines for dumping me in a place that reminded me why I left.

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Next stop: Fort Myers, Florida.

Posted by: facetothewind | February 25, 2015

Prisms of My Past Life

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Prisms of My Past Life

A poem by January Handl • photo by David Gilmore

I have been fractured
By the exquisite knife edge
Of love’s sharp blade
And all the wholeness I build,
Or march toward
Eludes me
While whispering promises
Of rest and peace.

I raise my voice in anguish
Trying to drown out
The despair’s high pitched
Keening wail
And realize my cries for help
Aren’t heard because
I haven’t released them
From my heart

What I know disappears
And I am forced to stand
In the shifting sands
Of the unknowable
Unknown

And the light
That I thought
Illuminated
My crystalline
shimmering selfhood
was actually,
always and
forever
me

Posted by: facetothewind | February 19, 2015

Random Shots in a Crowd

And the beauty of a well-cropped image

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So it’s Chinese New Year all around the world and while Chuan is off collecting his red packets of money and eating fishy foods with aunties and uncles, I took the opportunity of a national holiday to do a little walking tour with my camera. I went to Masjid Jamek (“masjid” means mosque) here in Kuala Lumpur. I ran immediately into a fantastic photo shoot: an all male crowd of foreign workers milling about a plaza on their day off. There was not a Chinese or a red envelope among them — mostly Bangladeshi and Pakistani. I deduced this because many of them were holding hands, an acceptable expression of friendship here in Malaysia (but don’t let there be love between the men or it’s a punishable offense). Anyway, they were waiting to send money to their home countries through the money transfer stations…

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There was the odd white tourist passing through nervously. Everyone in the crowd was about 4 inches shorter than me, perfectly well-behaved, and not at all fragrant as some would expect. So I felt perfectly comfortable to just ease through the crowd with my camera snapping away at the thousands of handsome men in their Sunday best (even though it’s Thursday) their black hair all neatly coiffed as if they were going to meet some women (dream on). They weren’t the super-smiley crowd which makes ME smile. I just can’t stand when people do the little peace sign and pose for the camera.

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I never set out with a theme in photography, I just let a theme reveal itself. Sometimes nothing surfaces at all and I go home empty-handed. But today it became clear to me that random black and white shots in the crowd with the expectation of heavy editing back at home would be the theme and so I just went with it. With the unpredictable nature of a dynamic crowd, it’s pointless to wait for the right moment ala Cartier-Bresson, whose philosophies of photography I usually follow. But today, a random shot into the crowd produces this…

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And with post-production, this is what I present to you…

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Random shot…

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Cropped (still don’t like the elbow in the left, but what can I do?)…

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This…

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Becomes this…

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I find that the best random shots are the ones where there’s some direct eye contact with me. And usually because I’m white and wear a fun hat, someone’s got their eyes on me. Without any eye contact with the camera, it can seem a little too disconnected.

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But sometimes the focal point may not be someone looking at me, but rather someone central looking at someone else as in this case…

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And here as well where there is direct eye contact with the camera but also someone looking at someone else. The viewer’s eye naturally will follow their gaze and that gives the photo a sense of drama and a possible story or two…

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Another thing is that if you shoot at a fairly low shutter speed, you’ll get a nice motion blur in the foreground and in this case it worked out because the central figure was standing still and so he’s crisp. What I ended up with was a circular motion around the central figure. You can feel the buzz of the crowd…

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Here I liked seeing the texture of the men’s hair in the sunlight as they watched a woman in a wet t-shirt at a dunking machine…

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And this is just on the way home in front of Masjid Jamek…

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Behind my building a guy contemplates fishing from the filthy river. Don’t do it guy, I saw someone pooping in it.

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Happy new year to all my lovely Chinese friends and extended family. This is the 4th new year in 7 months, so no more new years until this summer.

Posted by: facetothewind | February 9, 2015

Grabby Krabi

Any visit to Thailand is likely going to include a few things: cheap and sumptuous food, excellent massages, tip-hungry lady boys prowling the streets, throngs of Chinese tourists on their first trip out of China, and a new crop of Ingrish. So here it is, all that and more…the blog entry about my latest trip to Thailand. This trip was to Krabi — a small town on the west coast of the Malay Peninsula, on the Andaman Sea, just north of Malaysia. Sounds exotic, doesn’t it? It’s a short and super cheap (US$30) flight from Kuala Lumpur on AirAsia, so gee, how could I not be tempted to go?

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I’m gonna call Krabi Grabby because of the following incidents:

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After a $3 piña colada (or was it two), I was happily walking the streets alone on the eve of my 51st birthday and there I saw them in all their ersatz splendor: lady boy drag queens. Wow, what tits — even as a gay man noticed them! Thai modesty goes right out the window when it comes to lady boy drag queens whose bodices were not really covering their boobs, if you get a side glance. Is this because, frankly, their tits are not really mammary glands…they’re a guy’s pecs with hormones and implants? So by that definition it’s not indecent to have them pop out in public. Really, I don’t mind, I’m just asking.

What is indecent is how aggressive they are with their demands for tips. And for what, just standing around in a dress? They were promoting a cabaret show the following evening and so I took a flyer and cheerfully said I would come. I love a good cheap drag show and a bad cocktail. Then they insisted on taking my picture with them. And somehow I lost my seasoned travel smarts and agreed…must’ve been the cocktail. Snap, snap and next thing they’re demanding a tip. I told them I would come to their show and tip them tomorrow. Nothing doing. The one in white grabbed me with her nails digging into my arm, “Teeeeeep! Give teeeeeep!!” I repeated that I would see their show and I’m not tipping anyone for doing nothing. Their tone was getting very masculine and I started realizing this would get ugly so I wiggled out of White Witch’s claws and started hoofing it outta there when Pinky la Witch enclosed her talons around the straps of my backpack and pulled me backward toward to group, who I swear were going to reach into my pocket and help themselves to a tip. I swatted at her hand like one would a fly and bolted.

Next stop in Grabby, was a massage.

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This therapist is NOT the one mentioned in the below story of unseemly massage therapist behavior. The lady boy pictured above was quite professional and did a great job. Read on for something a little less legit…

I walked along the street looking for just the right massage shop and passed various women, old and young, hawking their massage services. “Massah Mistah?” No thank you, too girly. Shop looks creepy. No ladies, I’m not straight, and I don’t want a sex massage even when you smile and look longingly into my wallet. And then I passed a lithe young man who seemed to be amidships in some stage of his lady boy transformation with his hair in a little bun and face whitener smeared sloppily on. He looked a big haggard and I felt a little sorry for him and so I agreed to be his next victim, er, massage client. Rule number one: pity is not a good reason to choose a massage therapist, or really anyone for that matter. So he was somewhere in the middle of the oil massage when he started coming on to me. Next thing I know he’s got the towel off me and saying, “I give you happy ending. You give me teeeep.” Oh dear, not again. “No thank you, don’t want,” I told him. He tapped me with the back of his hand and held it out for a tip and kept insisting on giving me the happy ending I didn’t want. “Umm, NO! Don’t want!” Then I had to add a few more exclamation points and yank my towel back up in order to get my point across. Again, I ended up practically running down the street with this dude coming after me. I still felt sorry for him.

I regained my street smarts remembering to keep my distance from drag queens and don’t even make eye contact with hawkers. Then I lost it again.

The snorkeling tour from hell…

Years ago traveling in Thailand with Sebastian, we went on some little adventure tour packages and Thai cooking adventure trips. Here’s what these tours mostly are:

  1. You pay a chunk of money to your hotel who gets a nice cut of the booking and promises the tour will deliver a lot more than it does.
  2. They pick you up in a stinky open air bus or pickup truck with no cushions or shock absorbers.
  3. They drive you around and around for an hour stopping at every hotel to pick up more suckers…I mean wide-eyed tourists.
  4. Finally when the bus can take no more people, they add a few more to the front seat next to the driver and on the bumper of the truck.
  5. You arrive at your destination with several pounds of carbon monoxide in your lungs and your bones beaten up from the lack of shock absorption.
  6. Now you’re ready for your big adventure, so please wait here.
  7. You wait.
  8. You wait some more while your bladder is swelling to uncomfortable proportions because it’s now 90 minutes since you left your hotel.
  9. You board the boat which is actually nicer than you’d imagined at this point, don your lifejacket and the boat goes speeding off into the wild blue to…
  10. PICK UP MORE PEOPLE at their hotel’s docks. Two more stops and the boat is now full. The huge guy across from us is shoved to the end of his bench seat and half of him is hanging off the seat.
  11. Then the tour guide gives his announcement in broken English that we won’t be going to See Island because of some tidal problem (see brochure below)IMG_1398
  12. We arrive at Tup Island, the island paradise we were hoping for, and in fact we find about 800 mainland Chinese tourists on an island the size of my apartment. Our boat was sandwiched in between about 30 other speedboats and loud long tail boats which are essentially the Harley Davidsons of the boating world.Tub Island Krabi Thailand
  13. Chuan took off to swim shoulder-to-shoulder with the Chinese who probably had never seen the ocean before — let’s call it Beijing Beach. I lost my good humor and sat in the shade with chubby kids stepping on me and people clearing their throats loudly and yelling across the island and doing selfies with jumps and peace signs and spraying sunscreen over the top of me. My blood was boiling because I was so stupid to have gotten suckered. I decided to give some feedback to the tour guide, “Why bring us here? This not nice. Too many people. No fun.” “Get your own private boat,” was his answer. That was more than the usual about face you get from Thai people when you complain. And somehow I appreciated what he said, because it was true. We should have gotten a private boat.
  14. Finally it was time to leave and head for snorkeling, which is why we went on this trip in the first place. So they take us to another spot with about 20 other speedboats dropping anchor right onto what was once a coral reef (anchors and coral don’t get along) and tell us “OK, 30 minutes to snorkel, don’t go far from the boat.” We plunge in avoiding getting squished between boats. And behold…
  15. There are almost no fish. There are a few dozen of them around the boat waiting for tips…I mean food…to be dropped from the sides. But really, once you leave the boat, there are about 3 other fish. Grrrr. I found myself wishing I were back in Hawaii or the Virgin Islands where I was surrounded with swarms of colorful fish. But it gets worse…
  16. We do a quickie drive by Chicken Island so he could say that we covered that part promised in the tour brochure. And then it’s on to the lunch which from past experience I knew was going to be fried rice. Today it was one small fried chicken leg and some white rice and we are dumped on another small island with 70 speedboats (someone counted) carrying about 30 persons each. You do the math.
  17. Well let’s just say I counted the minutes to being back in the hotel with a beer and my earplugs, 800 Thai baht (per person) poorer. I was stupid — I learned this lesson long ago: don’t waste money on these tours. Do your own hike, your own adventure. Find a taxi or a boat and make your own agenda. These tourist torture ventures seem to be a way for Thai people to settle the score of economic differences between their poor country and your presumably rich one without just asking for teeeeeeps! Either way, it’s giving something and not getting much or anything in return. And that never feels good.

At last Thailand delivers…

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Here’s the sumptuous food that Thailand is famous for. The fried snapper with coconut milk sauce and veggies. It was absolutely fantastic! This is at The Massaman restaurant in Ao Nang town.

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Railay Beach — at low tide you can wade around the cliff from Ao Nang. It’s just delightful, but…

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watch out for the cheeky monkeys! I witnessed the monkeys raiding a tourist’s bag and stealing their iPhone. He held it under his arm like a briefcase and took off onto the cliffs. I wondered what he was going to do with it or why he took THAT of all things? A fearless and amused Thai guy jumped up on the rocks and grabbed its tail. The monkey threw the phone and the owner retrieved it. I bet it was gonna go online and order a gun and a case of bananas from GrubHub.

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The wide beach of Ao Nang at low tide. Just try to ignore the raw sewage flowing into the sea at one end of the beach.

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Ao Nang. Peaceful after the long-tail boats are finished revving their engines for the evening.

Here’s a little video encapsulation of Krabi:

And here’s a little photo gallery featuring some new Ingrishis signs I found. You can click on one and advance through them with your arrow button to see the captions…

Would I go back to Krabi? Nah. It didn’t grab me. It’s more of a transfer point for the islands than a destination, in my opinion. It has its charms but other places have more of what I’m looking for as an antidote to the stresses of Kuala Lumpur.

Posted by: facetothewind | February 3, 2015

Out and About

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I get up early to service California clients before they leave the office for the day. This is what I wake up to. It twinkles from afar.

I sort of resolved that to survive KL, one has to get out of KL as often as possible (scroll down to previous blog entry). So I’ve been doing some little trips out of the city to Ipoh and Malacca (aka Melaka) both with and without Chuan. Here are some of the photos of the past few weeks as Chinese New Year fast approaches…

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I booked the single room at the Café 1511 Guesthouse in Malacca. It was built in the 1896 as the servants’ quarters of a bigger mansion.

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My tiny room was US$22. The roundtrip bus fare from KL (2-hours each way) is about US$5. So for $37, I got to have a really nice little weekday escape from KL’s madness. The room was perfectly comfortable with aircon. No windows made it especially quiet.

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Chinese New Year is big in Malacca as it is mostly Chinese who live there. The holiday itself isn’t until the 19th but the city streets are already tricked out with red lanterns and everywhere is the sound of tacky (but kinda fun) new year’s music. Seems there’s a new year’s celebration every few months in Malaysia. I’ve witnessed 3 already and I’ve only been here 6 months.

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There’s one spot in town called Harmony Street because it has an Islamic mosque, a Hindu temple and a Buddhist temple.

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There’s a bit of a melange of chanting coming from the various locations.

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I visited my friend Dennis who grew up here but now lives in Oslo, Norway. It was fun to see his delight in how the town has improved and the river walk renovated.

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I can’t say I really like the food of Malacca yet. I haven’t done an exhaustive search for food to my taste, but when the Hard Rock Café looks to have the best menu, things are not good. Fish ball soup and Nyonya laksa (curry laksa) are probably the most popular and ubiquitous dishes in Malacca. And I can’t say I like either of them. If you grow up eating it, I guess I can understand it…I mean I eat blue cheese and honestly, it smells nasty but I love it.

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Curry laksa or Nyonya Laksa which is overspiced, oily, full of unidentified processed fish cakes/balls and usually a hard boiled egg thrown on top.

I’ve been zeroing in on what tastes and smells so bad in the food I’ve eaten in Malaysia. And here it is…

The culprit of the unpleasant smell of food in Malaysia.

The culprit of the unpleasant smell of food in Malaysia.

Belacan (the c is pronounced “ch”) is to blame for that stinky aroma surrounding restaurants here. It’s fermented shrimp paste and it’s in a LOT of foods here. It smells bad, tastes bad, and depending on the brand, can be full of the banned (but still in use) cancer-causing food dye Rhodamine B.

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And well, if you have to rush to the toilet after your over-spiced fishy meal, you might as well enjoy the very groovy one above at Restoran Paranakan — what I think had the best food in town…simple and nicely done bok choy and tofu. No nonsense and no belacan!

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Malacca is a charming place and I intend to be on that bus as often as possible. They’ve had the good sense not to tear down all their old buildings and put in malls. But isn’t it telling that they build this beautiful river walk and there’s no one using it. Dennis and I walked along it and saw very few people until it passed by a horrid modern shopping center that was plunked down right next to a historic Malay village. Of course IT was full of people.

Melaka-Malacca

Here’s a little video encapsulation of the past month or so in KL:

Onward to Ipoh. 

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The classic and crumbling old Kuala Lumpur Station. Hardly used now since they built the new hideousness called KL Sentral. I chose this one as our departure station instead of the new one. You can see how popular history over modernity is.

Chu and I took the train to Ipoh this last weekend. It’s supposed to be a 2-hour ride but turned into nearly 3 as we lost power half way there and sat on the tracks eating leftover home made carrot cake and pumpkin soup.

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All it would take would be a little tap of the sledge hammer at the right spot in that archway and this whole building will come down. Stand back!

Ipoh isn’t as charming or as preserved as Malacca.

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It might be one day, but it’s still kind of scruffy and crumbling and is a mix of modern and old that don’t quite work together very well. It appears to have no city planning department. Catch it before it crumbles.

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Though lacking in the architectural charm of Malacca, it has better food and a hip patronage passing through on their way to Penang perhaps, or on an eating binge from KL. This is the very vintagey Burps and Giggles restaurant in old town Ipoh…

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Their food is pretty good. Some of it is excellent — mostly Western food but it draws a mostly hip Malaysian Chinese clientele. We had a great soft shell crab burger, a rubbery chicken burger, a really nice cheese cake and pistachio gelato with caramelized apples. I also had the fish and chips. It was a Western eating binge to try and fatten myself up a bit. (Everyone seems to think I’m too skinny weighing in at 62.5 kilos = 138 pounds.)

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This is at the Happy Eight restaurant where we went for Chuan’s birthday dinner. I had really good spaghetti with chicken meatballs and he had the seafood carbonara pasta. Both were very nicely done and the space quite fascinating as we sat on top of a fish pond with fish swimming below our feet.

Ipoh also has Plan B – one of the Big Group’s restaurants. The Big Group is to Malaysia what McMenamins is to Portland, Oregon, USA. They like to buy up old buildings and repurpose them and serve mediocre food in a cool setting. Their service is always excellent and so that and the fun atmospheres they create sort of make up for what they lack culinarily. We tried to order a Mojito. Sorry can’t do it. How about a Manhattan? Couldn’t find the sweet vermouth. Then they couldn’t find soda water to make the high ball. So I had a beer. For the trouble they gave us free snacks and birthday cake for Chuan. So all was forgiven and we fed the too-chewy chicken snacks they brought us to the stray cats in the alley on the way back to the hotel.

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Happy 28th birthday, Chuan!

 And a few parting glances…

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Public sign which reads: no improper conduct. You should see the violence shown on Malaysian TV but the love scenes are all edited out.

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Too bad. Love isn’t improper.

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We tried to go to the Hindu festival Thaipusam at the Batu Caves but we couldn’t get on the trains…not even room for skinny me. But they sure looked like they were having fun. We finally left the train station at 1am and went home. :(

Next stop: Krabi, Thailand for MY birthday!

Posted by: facetothewind | January 29, 2015

This Body

David-Gilmore-photography

This Body

A poem by January Handl • photo by David Gilmore

This body belongs not to me
It belongs to time-
an illusion that acts
slowly or quickly to
nip
and chip
at the
integrity of the temporary
forms that have evolved to know
the greatness of
the void
the fullness of space
the constant attraction and repellants
of magnetism, gravity
and what we call
love.

And though linear time is a construct
of the other beings before and next to me;
A shared co-creation that has
no foothold in the entirety of existence,
It still holds sway over
this constricted view,
this limited perception:
People, things, creatures, places,
all pop in and out
of here and now
and feelings of loss and gratitude
can sweep away full lifetimes
of knowing this.

Posted by: facetothewind | January 26, 2015

Kuala Lumpur: the good, the bad, the ugly.

I’ve been here in Kuala Lumpur for 6 months now. So this is my 6-month check up, check in, valuation of all things good and bad…

The Big Bad Things (what I truly hate about KL):

1. The gross disregard for pedestrians. IMG_1234IMG_1176 Simply put, KL is not a walking city. It’s a driving city. And that leaves the streets noisy, congested, and the air polluted. But for those few of us weirdoes who do like to walk, it’s an endless obstacle course to avoid falling into a hole or having to go around cars and motorbikes left on the sidewalk with complete disregard for those on foot. 2. The garbage. IMG_1179 People in KL are, frankly, pigs. (So are white trash in America in case you think I’m just picking on this poor country.) They throw their garbage everywhere which causes the city to smell like a giant vinegary turd. The rivers are full of garbage floating by on the way to the ocean. It’s unbelievable how people can be so disrespectful of their own environment. And it is why we have number 4… 4. Rats. rats The rat population of KL is estimated to be 4x that of the human population. I’ve seen them jumping up on food stall counters. I saw a street food stall operator bonk one on the head with a pan and drop it into the sewer by its tail. Did he wash his hands after this? I doubt it. I’ve seen a rat go by my feet in a nice restaurant. In my opinion it’s because of the garbage that is just carelessly thrown on the sidewalk — it provides and easy and constant source of nutrition for them. In 2013, there were 3,000 cases of leptospirosis (rat urine disease) reported, and nearly 30 fatalities that year. A friend of mine was recently diagnosed and spent 6 weeks in the hospital where he nearly died. He will be on medication the rest of his life. 5. The bad food. IMG_0893 That may not look bad but it’s frozen peas, frozen carrots, over-spiced, and fishy. And that’s the cheap food. The expensive food — well that’s a whole other category. Just last night I had a Norwegian salmon fillet that cost me 40 RM (about $13). That’s a fairly pricey meal in Malaysia. And within an hour I had a pretty significant case of diarrhea. Fine restaurants are staffed with foreign workers – mostly from Bangladesh and the Philippines. And they don’t speak English terribly well and are often untrained in hospitality. So my guess is someone didn’t wash their hands before placing my lovely piece of salmon atop a bed of greens which were probably also not washed. Grrrrr. Somehow just over the border, Thai people with the same ingredients came up with a world class cuisine that Malaysians seem to have bungled. And I’ve never been sick in Thailand. Chuan has worked tirelessly to find some decent restaurants for us to go to. There are a couple of them. But in a city of this size, only a couple is pretty sad. 6. The bad driving. car Malaysia has the distinction of being one of the worst in the world when it comes to annual road fatalities…24 per 100,000 vs 4 in developed nations. I am continually astounded by the driving horrors I see. Motorcyclists riding with no hands, or lying flat on their bellies with feet extended out behind them at high speeds,weaving recklessly, driving the wrong way on a one-way street, routinely driving through intersections and stop signs, driving on sidewalks. Unbelievable. It’s as if someone gave a bunch of monkeys keys to the car. I spoke to a trauma surgeon at a local hospital and he said you wouldn’t believe the road pizza he sees on a daily basis. Yes I would believe it. 7. Traffic congestion. ISARally-010809-Jam01 Because I’m primarily a public transit user, I have little right to complain about traffic. But it becomes my problem when I have to wade through it and inhale it and listen to it.

 The Little Bad Things (not deal breakers individually but they do add up):

1. People eating with their fingers (OK, it’s a tradition but it seems uncivilized for a nation trying to be world class.) IMG_1062 2. People who push onto a crowded subway before letting passengers off. It’s selfish and it’s the norm. I now just plow right through them and knock them out of the way. LRT 3. Unruly cigarette smokers. People will smoke right in front of no smoking signs. And where do you think the butts go? Of course. Into the street which end up in the river and then on the beach in a couple of days. 4. Saudis expats and tourists. By and large they are not friendly, they all smoke, and honestly I feel sorry for the women running around in full black burkas in oppressive tropical heat while their husbands walk around in shorts and flip flops. saudi 5. Broken shit. It seems Malaysians can’t fix anything. They can build things with amazing speed but when it comes to maintenance, it’s mostly just spraying a little air freshener or waving the dusting feather. And then comes the Out of Order sign. Truth in labeling, it should say ‘FOREVER’ at the bottom.

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The machines in my gym have been broken for months. I’ve complained several times and I always get the same answer: “Oh will be fixed next week.” Yeah.

6. Fruit flies. I cannot get rid of them. 7. Hot and humid weather. Well, it’s the tropics. What do you expect? It is what it is.

The Big Good Things:

1. Chuan, my boyfriend. He’s why I came here and a good 75% of why I’ve stayed. His generosity of spirit and loving kindness toward me continue to humble me. He’s being a good sport putting up with my trashing his city. (But I think he agrees.) DSC04004 2. Excellent and cheap medical care…the remaining 25%. I thought Thai health care was excellent but Malaysia’s is even better. It’s a small fraction of what you’d pay in the US and I’ve never waited more than 3 minutes to see a doc at the state of the art hospital Tung Shin. Tung Shin has Western and Chinese medicine sides joined together in a full East-meets-West medical complex. Just walk in and be seen. Amazing.

Tung-Shin

A full comprehensive medical checkup at one of the premiere hospitals costs $108 USD and includes full blood and urine tests, ECG, ultrasound, chest x-ray and 2 doctor consultations.

3. English! Widely spoken with strong accent and a ‘la’ put at the end of most sentences. Still it’s mostly intelligible. 4. AirAsia’s hub at KLIA…because, the best view of KL is in the rearview mirror. I can walk out my door, jump on the train and be at the airport in 50 minutes and then I can get a $35 flight to Thailand for some good massages and great food. Or $150 to Hong Kong to see Sebastian and be among civilized urban dwellers for a few days. (Hopefully they will soon find the plane-gobbling monster that lives somewhere offshore of Malaysia.)

Not to mention the cute flight attendants!

Not to mention the cute flight attendants!

5. Tropical fruit. It’s cheap, abundant, and wonderful. My faves are passionfruit and pineapple. fruit 6. Alexis the jazz club bistro I insist on going to as often as possible. The music is almost always great. The service and atmosphere are excellent. The food pretty good and sometimes even great. It’s easy to forget what a hot mess it is outside when you’re seated in Alexis enjoying a drink listening to a late night jazz concert by candlelight. And smokers have their own section! IMG_9774 7. Our apartment on the 30th floor overlooking the city. How enchanting it looks from a distance with the windows closed and the aircon on. Distance does lend enchantment. So, off to Krabi, Thailand, next week and then back to the States. DSC04239

Weighing all things:

By becoming an expat American, I’ve gained affordable health care, a boyfriend, and proximity to some pretty exotic shores. What I lost leaving the US was decent sidewalks, cycling, clean food, blue skies, clean beaches, cheap alcohol, and the basics of (too much) law and order. So I’m on the fence about what to do. Seems that to survive here, I have to learn to be inured to the offenses that KL presents the minute I walk out the door…or just stay home and cook all the time. I could start by just accepting that it’s an undeveloped nation with a veneer of being developed. When you scratch the glossy surface of KL, it feels uncivilized and indecent — a corrupt country wanting a place at the international table of developed nations. But there’s a slothful and complacent mentality here that handicaps the people from attaining that. They’ll never speak up and demand anything. And so they just have to take what they get. The rich will remain corrupt and greedy and leave the poor to serve them. On the other hand, I can also remember being shot at in the States, my lackluster love life, the barking dogs, the white trash, and the exorbitant cost of health care. I’m very likely not going to return the States to live until something changes with health care and gun control. And that may not happen in my lifetime. And frankly, the United States is every bit as corrupt and rife with cronyism as Malaysia, just with the a much heavier hand of law but with the promise of ‘transparency’ and the hope to protest. And America’s got damn nice national parks. So what to do? Where to go? It’s hard being an idealist always searching for Utopia fully knowing it doesn’t exist. I’m considering re-considering Thailand as a more pleasant place to home base. I know it’s not any more organized or civilized. But at least the food’s better and the people are friendlier. Now that I have a partner, I can’t just pack up and hit the road — I have someone else to consider. Wherever and whenever I go next, I hope I can export the best part of Malaysia…my boyfriend. idealism

Posted by: facetothewind | January 15, 2015

Rhythm of Life

David Gilmore photos Myanmar poverty

Rhythm of Life
poem by January Handl • photo by David Gilmore

Sounds go tap tapping in my heart,
worry for the suffering
working on my own version,
the world goes spinning in space

Tears splinter into glass-sharded prisms
that carry the pain I keep
running from,
the pain I carry anyway,
its heavy cries sealed in the voice
that looks for laughter
as a relief from the weight
of jagged-thorns of tender traumas

I belittle my own weakness of body,
pain-wrapped, weary wedges of
dragging through routine
while
Silhouette of Soul,
silent and serene,
hidden in the mists of loss and love
vibrating with hidden strings
plays the music of the universe
tap tapping in my heart

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